Majoring in music was never the most practical choice, but I did it anyway. I double-majored in philosophy and called myself “pre-law” for any concerned parents who thought I was wasting my education, then found my career path by spending all my time at the Duke newspaper office.
The funny thing was the music itself, which bore little resemblance to the music that fueled my life and does so to this day.
I spent four semesters studying music history, the first one and a half covering the era before Bach. The last ended with some comical avant-garde stuff that had the more delicate ears in the class racing to leave the room. Stockhausen might not be a “trigger warning” requiring a safe zone, but it’s safe to say we didn’t all run out and buy CDs of whatever he was composing.
Outside class, I was still listening to the music that was my lifeline as a nerdy high schooler back in the days when “nerd” and “geek” were not good things to be. I had the odd smattering of jazz and Bobby McFerrin on my dorm-room playlist, but it was mostly the staples of college and classic rock. R.E.M. Husker Du. Pink Floyd.
Today, that hasn’t changed. My flirtations with classical music are few and far between. As I age, I’m listening to musicians a little younger than me, not the ones who have preceded me into the grave.
It’s very simple. I love rock and roll.
I’ve rationalized rock on an intellectual level many times over. In my final semester, I took a Philosophy of Music course, neatly combining my two majors, and I used Sting’s album The Soul Cages to demonstrate motif and meaning in my final project. Must’ve been OK — I got an A-minus and merrily marched off to my newspaper career.
But as I get older, I realize there’s no need to apologize for what speaks to me. Rock and roll speaks to me in ways that classical music does not.
For a while, I wedded my classical studies with my rock proclivities in that wonderful yet pretentious genre — progressive rock. Rush and Yes spun complex melodies and counterpoints into long-form pieces of music.
Here’s Jon Anderson, the longtime lead singer and inspirational force behind Yes, singing the classic track Awaken with a mix of rock and classical musicians in Iceland (you can stop once Awaken is done — the video also includes a few minutes of a rendition of Roundabout that doesn’t quite work):
Awaken shows what’s possible in rock while also teetering on the edge of excess. A lot of progressive rock epics spilled over that edge. Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus is an acquired listen — feel free to bail out after the first few minutes. Yes divided its fanbase — and the band itself — with Tales from Topographic Oceans. Rush recorded the last of its 20-minute epics (a full side of a vinyl LP, the dominant medium in those days) with Hemispheres and decided not to do that any more.
I still love Rush and Yes. Rush is the more vibrant band today, recording a full-fledged concept album in Clockwork Angels and still showing off their old classical-style classic rock songs like Xanadu on tour. (Granted, this was probably their last big tour, but what they’ve done in the past 10-15 years is remarkable.)
(Don’t you love Geddy Lee’s elegant bass lines at the 5-minute mark?)
And you can hear the influence of these prog-rock dinosaurs in the grand gestures of Muse. That’s a little more exciting than Stockhausen, isn’t it? Ready to go face the day at work?
But rock music doesn’t need to be this dazzling to inspire. Consider The Joy Formidable, another power trio that has the occasional flourish but is mostly straightahead rock that you could teach a lot of kids to play.
In my snobbier days, I might have considered this music too simplistic. Now I see it as more efficient. And it’s subtly clever, with rhythmic shifts that aren’t quite typical.
And it conveys the message so beautifully. It’s as inspirational as anything you’ll hear in gospel.
Even instrumental rock music can speak to me. If you’ve seen Friday Night Lights, you’re probably familiar with Explosions in the Sky, which can wrest beauty out of such simple melodies and counterpoints. I get chills around the 2:45 mark of Your Hand in Mine, and it just builds from there to a breathtaking release around 5:00.
(If only we’d studied that in counterpoint class. That’s the organic chemistry of the music major — so many rules. One Duke professor could apparently improvise fugues that followed all the rules, which is an astounding mathematical feat.)
If you need to hear an instrumental that’s a little more playful after such an emotional tune, try this fun fan video for the Rush song YYZ, which builds off the Morse code for Toronto’s airport.
You don’t need cranked-up guitars to have a good rock song. Ben Folds — who, oddly enough, was playing percussion with the Duke Wind Symphony on a semester abroad in Austria while I was in the “scab” Wind Symphony back at Duke — has recorded many great songs propelled by his piano.
(Another good piano option — Billy Joel’s eloquent Summer, Highland Falls.)
But guitars are such expressive instruments. Notes can bend and ring. A chord can be strummed delicately or powerfully.
Consider the difference in these two versions of the same song — Poe’s Hello. The keyboard-heavy, atmospheric version is intriguing but flimsy. Now cue up the rock version (and a video co-directed by her brother, novelist Mark Z. Danielewski. Those opening notes immediately take you into her world, hinting at isolation she energetically tries to bridge in the choruses, where the guitars’ power shines through.
One of the masters of guitar expression is Billy Corgan, best known through his band Smashing Pumpkins. Listen to how much Corgan’s vocals and guitar pack into the first 90 seconds of the song Siva — a powerful riff with a subtle bend, a short guitar fill, then an a cappella finish to the chorus: “Tell me, tell me what you’re after / I just wanna get there faster.”
(Maybe just listen. The video is a little off-kilter.)
But the most important part of a rock song is often the singing. Sure, a lot of music is just aiming for the old American Bandstand compliment: “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” (I can’t, but maybe someone else can.) Rock bands, though, are often trying to say something relateable. Consider this simple but powerful Nada Surf tune, Treading Water, with a helpfully subtitled video. Can anyone here not relate to feeling overwhelmed — “always rushing, always late”?
And that tune shows why rock and roll is not something you outgrow. It grows more meaningful over time.
When I interviewed high school seniors for Duke admissions, I always asked what kind of music they liked. I somehow wound up with a bunch of perpetually cheerful kids who gave me a vague “Oh, I like everything.” I walked away wondering what the deal was with these kids. Music meant everything to me in high school.
I later realized the difference. I went through some difficult times in high school. My mother had health issues. I was about as socially awkward as you could get.
By the time we grow up, we’ve all been through some difficult times. We’ve all felt the time crush Nada Surf is talking about. We may long for the spiritual awakening Yes is singing about. We can all relate to The Joy Formidable telling us to grab hold of a ladder and climb out of whatever pit we’re in.
We’ve all had the blues.
And we’ve often felt alienated, a common theme Blue Man Group hits hard in its terrific parody/homages. If you can get your hands on the group’s DVDs The Complex Rock Tour Live or How to be a Megastar Live, do it. They satirize a lot of rock gestures — head bobbing, fist pumps, even the obligatory call for Free Bird — but The Complex is also a sympathetic look at people feeling crushed by meaningless routine and yearning to break free.
But rock isn’t all alienation. Consider Cowboy Mouth, a New Orleans quartet. The drummer/vocalist, Fred Leblanc, is on a mission. By the time you leave his show, he’s going to make damn sure you took everything that had been bothering you and threw it away. He’s part rock singer, part exorcist.
In their signature song, Jenny Says, Fred sings “Let it go!” more often than whoever sang the Disney tune of that name. And he’s not suggesting you let it go. He’s insisting.
Watch, especially the last three minutes. It’s a celebration of being alive. It’s a spiritual experience — Fred has the zeal of an evangelist and the mindfulness of a Buddhist:
It’s primal-scream therapy. That’s rock and roll. Through alienation and celebration, rock and roll lets us know we’re not alone. It sympathetically voices our frustrations. It amplifies our joy.
And it’s a legitimate art form. I know this because Duke now offers a History of Rock course.
Maybe that’ll make the kids I interviewed appreciate just how special this music is.
(The music in this post is in a Spotify playlist that also includes
- Death Cab for Cutie’s Cath, which tells the timeless story of a woman settling for the “well-intentioned man”
- Green Day’s punk opera Jesus of Suburbia
- Silversun Pickups’ Panic Switch, in which the relentless beat-hopping bass underscores the uneasiness of the lyrics)